First off – one cop being asked to leave one coffee shop is no big deal. The manufactured controversy over a single interaction is what unfortunately passes as news these days. As far as the blogger who created the story – where will cops ever get their coffee? Well, only about 45,000 other places in Portland. As we’ve heard, police officers are still able to get coffee, and business at the Red and Black Café is booming. However, despite the non-story story, there are interesting issues that get lost amidst soundbite spats.
When I was in college, I joined several campus groups. One was the Feminist Alliance – a group dedicated to protecting and enhancing the rights of women, and creating safe space to talk about gender and power issues. The group met in the Women’s Center, and was open to both men and women. I was one of two men to attend, along with a couple dozen women. At my second meeting, someone made a statement along the lines of “Men are assholes.” It brought a lot of laughter, a few looks, and a few kind words directed at me. A friend apologized to me afterward.
While my intentions were good, I was interfering with the group. I was making it a less safe space for women to openly express and work out their feelings. I was part of the privileged – males, the group in power – and I hindered the work. In other spaces and on other projects, we found ways to work together productively to fight sexism. But for this group to be effective at what it wanted to do, it was valuable for women to have space free of members of the group in power. I stopped attending those meetings.
Back to the Red and Black. The Red and Black Café wants to “provide a community space that is safe and welcoming to all." They’re working to create a space safe for community members, as well as people and groups who may organize to challenge traditional authority structures. They work to serve as “an example of ethical, non-hierarchical business.”
What, then, to do when someone comes in who makes the core clientele feel less safe – in this case, a police officer in uniform? By serving everyone, including those who make some regular patrons feel less welcome, the cafe might fail in its aspirational (perhaps overly broad) mission.
As a society, we sanction giving police officers power over others. While that provides us a lot of benefits, it can make many people feel less safe, especially those in the less powerful parts of society. Officers not only have guns, but legal authority, and a great deal of institutional and psychological power. Most police work hard and face incredible challenges, and deserve our thanks for a job well done. But officers still have more power than others, which runs counter to the types of communities some are trying to create.
To his credit, Officer Crooker seemed to be polite and professional, and it was good of him to support businesses in his area. But he clearly failed to understand why he was asked to leave. On KGW, he said “For him to ask me to leave based on the color of the uniform I am wearing… it sort of hearkens to the days of segregation.”
As the Red and Black’s owners explained, he was asked to leave because of the power of his uniform – a uniform he could easily change, unlike the color of his skin. The psychological effect of police uniforms has been extensively studied, with people both trusting and obeying those in uniform more. At times, police use different colors to have different psychological effects (black uniforms instill fear, for example). Uniforms aren't exactly in line with the Cafe's values about anarchy and non-hierarchy.
The idea that this situation was anything like segregation – the omnipresent, systematic abuse and devaluation of minorities as people using political institutions, intimidation and force – is, to put it kindly, incorrect. As I hear it, the Red and Black workers are concerned about the effect uniformed police officers have on their community space, given the history of some officers using or abusing power. Implying that the powerful are being somehow being oppressed by the less powerful - by politely being asked to leave - is wrong.
What the Red and Black and the Feminist Alliance both have is an appreciation of power dynamics. Having a space free of those who have institutionalized power is valuable. Perhaps the tactics and sound bites aren’t the right ones, but the intent is to work hard to empower people and community.
As we strive to reach our common goals of safety and equality, those of us who have power – be it white men or police officers – have the responsibility to listen closely to those with less power. And with continued work and dialogue – in the right places, and the right times - we can create a society we’re proud to live in.